In 2013 the world was stunned by the resignation of the Pope, from an office that is almost always held for life. Pope Benedict XVI, in announcing his resignation (helpfully in Latin) was however drawing on a tradition and precedent which can be traced back to the 13th century.
The first pope to resign however, Pope Celestine V, did not enjoy as smooth as transition as Benedict. Instead, this first Papal resignation led directly to another event which darkened the reputation of the Catholic Church: the first Papal murder.
Here is the story of Celestine V and Boniface VIII.
Pope Celestine V served as the head of the Catholic Church for a very brief period of time, and was in office from July to December of 1294. His contribution to Christianity was immense since he was a monk as well as a hermit, and the founder of the Celestine order. During his youth, he was a Benedictine but later, he became a hermit and resided in the Abruzzi Mountains.
He was elected as a Pope when he almost 80 years old, an astonishing age for the time. He accepted the position only because the church at the time was in ruins, and the Papal position had been vacant for a couple of years.
Even though Celestine V is believed to be a righteous and holy man, he lacked administrative capabilities. Moreover, he believed that the pope’s position acted as a major source of distraction that would not help him to achieve salvation. He was a simple man, ill suited to high office and the bureaucratic burden that came with it.
Celestine V decided to resign from his position because he felt that by continuing as the Pope, the risk for his soul and the church would magnify. After consulting the cardinals, he ultimately took the decision to resign from his position. When he had made up his mind that he was unfit and unwilling to continue serving as the pope, he gave his resignation.
Celestine V therefore resigned as head of the Catholic Church and returned back to the humble life that he had led previously. However, after his resignation he was seen as a danger to the Papacy, someone who considered himself too holy to be Pope, which sounds a lot like blasphemy.
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Too dangerous to be left to his own devices, he was eventually imprisoned by his successor, Boniface VIII. Even though he wanted to return to his original life as a hermit, he was incarcerated in order to prevent him from converting into effectively an antipope.
He was not able to go back to his normal life and was instead confined to Fumone castle in Lazio, in Italy. While acting as the successor, Boniface VIII not only locked up Celestine V but also eliminated a majority of his records while he was serving as the Pope.
Unhappy at his incarceration, Celestine V was able to escape from prison. However, he was captured again while wandering forests and mountains. After he was recognized, he was recaptured. He led his life’s last nine months as a prisoner, and he spent most of his time praying.
He was believed to be treated badly by the other prisoners and the guards. And when Celestine V ultimately passed away in the year 1296, it was rumored that Boniface VIII was responsible for his murder in captivity.
This rumor emerged since there was a mysterious hole at the top of his skull, which was believed to be evidence of acute blunt trauma. Not satisfied with imprisoning Celestine, it seemed that Boniface thought him too dangerous to be left alive
However, a more recent examination that was conducted revealed that Boniface VIII may not have murdered Celestine V, and that the damage to the skull is not as a result of a deliberate act. However it cannot be denied that with the death of Celestine, an uncomfortable figure for the Catholic Church was handily removed.
Boniface VIII: A Very Different Sort of Pope
Boniface VIII served as the head of the Catholic Church from 1294 until his death in 1303. He is now considered to be one of the most controversial popes in the history of the Catholic Church. He involved himself in diverse foreign affairs, which led to several bitter quarrels and controversies.
He gained notoriety for his excommunication of King Philip IV of France and for taking control by force off a piece of land that was previously owned by an Italian family. It has been reported that after taking away the land, he shared it among his favorites rather than bring it into the possessions of the Church.
It is believed that the severe beatings that he faced contributed to his demise. Before taking his last breath, he had professed his faith and taken the sacraments. It was reported that he was strong and did not show signs of weakness prior to his demise.
With the stories of Celestine V and Boniface VIII, two very different Popes, it can be seen that the position as head of the Catholic Church could be a dangerous one. The lives of popes can be filled with uncertainties and complexities.
The situation involving Celestine V gives a glimpse into papal resignation and the aftermath that a pope might face after taking the decision to resign. Similarly, while exploring the life of Boniface VIII as the pope of the Catholic Church, one can observe that papal murder can cut short the life of a pope.
Celestine V’s decision to resign showed that he was a righteous person and felt that he was unfit to serve as Pope. On the other hand, the actions that were committed by Boniface VIII while serving as the pope show how he had used his position to involve in a number of controversial acts and decisions, which ultimately led to his tragic fate.
Thus, the lives of Popes can be full of ups and downs as diverse events like papal resignation, and papal murder may arise their ability to serve as Pope.
By Bipin Dimri